The Last Straw


Photo courtesy of the Wiki Commons.

By Christine Harris

Two years ago the National Park Service visitor center where I work held a public screening of the documentary film Bag It! followed by a panel discussion. Bag It! tells the story of Jeb Berrier whose decision to stop using single-use plastic bags leads him to delve into the complicated world of recycling and the impacts that plastics have on our oceans and our health. The panel discussion was to focus on recycling and plastics in our oceans.

As the panel members took their seats in front of the audience after the showing I was surprised to see a ten-year-old boy among them. The boy was Milo Cress founder of the Be Straw Free campaign. At first I thought, why focus on straws? Don’t we have bigger issues to face? Yet after hearing more from Milo about his campaign I better understood how his message fits into the much larger issues of disposable plastics and plastics in our oceans.

Straws are one of the top ten marine debris items. In 2013 COASTSWEEP, an annual volunteer-based cleanup of Massachusetts’ beaches, found straws and drink stirrers to be the fifth most common type of trash collected with over 5,100 collected during the event.

Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

An albatross with a stomach full of plastic debris. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

In the United States 500 million disposable straws are used each day. Though most straws are made of recyclable plastics like plastic #2 or #5, plastic drinking straws present a problem for single stream recycling and most communities will not recycle them. Straws can jam up the large sorting machines used at single stream recycling facilities.

Milo Cress’ Be Straw Free campaign, which he started when he was nine years old, invites people to take the pledge to go straw free by asking for no straw when at restaurants or when getting drinks to go and by not purchasing them for use at home. For those who like to use straws he suggests buying a reusable straw. His campaign also encourages restaurants to adopt an Offer First policy. Instead of automatically giving each patron a straw restaurant employees first ask customers if they want one.

Milo, who hails from Burlington, Vermont, has brought his movement all over the country. In his hometown Mayor Bob Kiss issued a proclamation declaring the tenets of the “Be Straw Free” as best practices for the city. In July of 2013, after meeting Milo, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared a statewide “Straw Free Day.” On Earth Day in 2013 Xanterra Resorts, a concessionaire responsible for running lodges and restaurants in many national parks including Yellowstone, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, partnered with Milo to bring the “Be Straw Free” campaign to their facilities.

Grand Canyon Lodge. Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Grand Canyon Lodge. Managed by Xanterra Resorts. Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Milo has also visited countless schools in the United States, Australia and Europe where he encourages schools to stop using plastic straws and raises awareness about larger issues like single use disposable plastics and plastics in our oceans. Not bad for a kid who’s twelve years old.

Trash-Less Travel


Typical inflight meal. Photography courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

The first time I ever considered that packaging and single-use disposable goods were a problem was on a Spring Break road trip to the Utah desert during college, circa 1988. I was traveling with friends. We stopped at a fast food place. As we un-bagged our food, one of my companions remarked, while looking at the plastic utensils, “So much packaging.”

What? Naively, I replied with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but if people throw it away instead of on the ground…”. Until that moment, I’d never considered that trash was an issue, unless it was left as litter on the landscape. I’d also never considered the problem with disposables.

My friend’s comment that March day 26 years ago left an indelible mark, and changed my behavior. I began taking my own coffee cup and water bottle to campus with me, started washing and reusing plastic bags and brown paper lunch sacks, and avoiding straws and plastic forks, knives, and spoons. A simple change of habit, and a simple shift in thinking. How many one-use food service items have I saved from the landfill in that span of time?

As I continue to travel, I continue to have an awareness of the trash generated by travel. Airports are full of single-use, grab-and-go products. Each on-board snack, beverage, or meal comes in its own container. Most of the packaging is non-recyclable and most airlines don’t recycle anyway. As I observed while sitting at my gate in Heathrow on my recent trip to Ireland, most people walk by and toss, not even looking to put the plastics in the plastics bin, the paper in the paper bin–signaling that established airport recycling programs are ineffective.

In her article, “Leaving Trash Behind,” Christine Negroni of The New York Times cites National Resource Defense Council figures, “An estimated 7.5 million pounds of trash is generated every day. While the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, says that 75 percent of that trash is recyclable, it has found that only 20 percent reaches a recycling center.” Negroni also acknowledges that research and action on this issue are lacking, “The council’s figures are from 2006, but are the most recent. The lack of current data was one concern of the Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International.”

NRDC’s 2006 report, Trash Landings, explains, “The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans each year to build 48 Boeing 747 planes.” And “9,000 tons of plastic,” along with “enough newspapers and magazines to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.” On a personal level, passengers generate 1.28 pounds of waste per person, per departure. On my recent trip to Ireland, I visited four airports to get from Washington State to Cork; if I consumed at the average rate, I would have left behind 5.12 pounds of trash.


Typical inflight single-use snack items. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

But I don’t consume at the average rate. I figure I have a choice as a consumer to buy or not to buy products in a terminal. So, to avoid taking part in the rampant disposability that is modern air travel, I plan ahead:

  • As much as possible, I pack fruit, nuts, and hard vegetables so that I don’t have to eat plane food or stave off hunger with expensive terminal fare. Smoked salmon and tinned meat, like Trader Joe’s smoked trout, also travel well, and don’t have to be kept cold.
  • I always travel with a water bottle. I fill it at a fountain as soon as I’m through the security line, and have found most flight attendants are pleasantly willing to pour water into it for me during the flight. Before I left for Ireland, I upgraded my re-usable bottle. I bought a Klean Kanteen insulated bottle, so now I can use it for water and tea (again, flight attendants obliged).
  • And, I keep a fork and a spoon in my handbag. This way, I can say “no thanks” to plastic utensils when I do have to purchase a meal while waiting for my connecting flight.


Photograph courtesy of Klean Kanteen website.

On the longest stretch of my recent trip to Ireland, ten hours from San Francisco to Heathrow, I counted–I was offered eight beverage cups (and took none). Multiplied by the 500 or so passengers on an international flight? That’s over 4,000 cups. And that’s just cups–the Federal Aviation Administration, in Recycling, Reuse and Waste Reduction at Airports, published in 2013, states that in flight kitchens, “several types of waste” are generated in preparing on board meals. And, as any flyer knows, those meals come heavily packaged, thus incur more waste when consumed. Times 500 or so passengers per plane.

Green America, in the report, What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry, February 2010, suggests that “an additional 500 more tons of waste could be recycled each year.”

The social norms of air travel don’t seem to include a focus on sustainability. Thankfully, organizations such as the NRDC and the FAA are working to shift perspectives and habits. NRDC’s report explains that 75 percent of airport waste is recyclable or compostable. The council also calculated that, if airports recycled at the national average of 31 percent, “enough energy would be saved to power 20, 000 households,” and carbon emissions would be reduced by an amount equaling 80,000 cars. Furthermore, “four airports with recycling programs studied by NRDC are achieving savings of more than $100, 000 annually.”

In researching for this article, I did find some interesting programs in place:

  • Oakland International Airport’s website explains that OAK is one of the first airports to recycle pillows–which are normally thrown away at the end of the flight. Oakland’s pillows are recycled into insulation or are used for making furniture.
  • NPR’s Julie Rose reports (December 2012), North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport uses worms to “eat through organic waste.” The worms have helped the airport reduce its waste sent to the landfill by 70 percent. Interestingly, the program even launders clothing left behind when a traveler’s suitcase is overweight, and then donates the clothing.
  • An article in Onboard Hospitality shares the anecdote from the 1990’s of American Airlines flight attendants spearheading an onboard recycling program, selling the recyclables, and then using the $200, 000 they earned to buy a plot of land for The Nature Conservancy.
  • Green America’s report suggests travelers take recyclables off the plane themselves, and recycle them at their destination. The article also includes a recycling report card for the major airlines–and nobody earned an A+.

The push to address the issue of the trash of travel is encouraging news. But, recycling is still a form of waste management. Lowering the amount of waste is crucial, and doable. As consumers, we do have choices. The power of our choices is that we can change our habits, which in turn will change the amount of trash we pile up when we fly.

Trash for Peace

bin design top view

By Prem Chandika Devi

Many are familiar with Barbara Cooney’s award-winning story, Miss Rumphius. But few take it quite so seriously as Laura Kutner, a young woman from Portland, Oregon.

In this children’s classic young Alice Rumphius’ grandfather gives her three life tasks. She is instructed to go to faraway places, to live by the sea, and to do something to make the world more beautiful. It seems like a recipe for a fairly good life, and Laura is determined to put it to the test. She’s seen some faraway places and lived by the sea, and now Laura is on a mission to make the world more beautiful.

Trash for Peace is a non-profit that she incorporated in August 2012. The organization’s goal is to educate about the importance of reducing, reusing and rethinking waste by using functional art, thus decreasing the need for conventional large-scale recycling. Activities and projects for individuals of all ages bring awareness to the use of disposable items, make traditional recycling more convenient and promote the direct repurposing of recyclables.

Laura with volunteers inGranados

The ideas that inspired Trash for Peace came to Laura when she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote town called Granados in central Guatemala. Since Granados didn’t have a sanitary landfill, residents burned their household waste and often left disposable items in the streets. With a growing culture of disposable products, the town was littered in plastic bags, food wrappers, and plastic bottles.

The area had its share of economic hardships. Laura was working with youth who were crowded into tiny, extremely loud schoolrooms. Through children and trash Laura saw her opportunity to make Granados a little bit more beautiful. “When I first came to Granados, other Peace Corps volunteers would say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky you’re working with kids,’ she explained, ‘because when you’re in with the kids, you’re in with the parents.’” Laura became interested in a group called Pura Vida Atitlan that had created a system for building walls out of trash. After seeing basic designs for one-room buildings constructed of plastic bags stuffed into plastic bottles, she began a campaign to build new classrooms for the school.

the beginning of a bottle wall

Here’s how it worked: the entire community, led by the children, would go out and collect bottles and plastic bags from the ground. They stuffed bags—often over a hundred—into plastic bottles until they had created “eco-bricks,” a term coined by Pura Vida Atitlan. And then they stacked the bottles to create the base of walls. These bottle walls were then encased in chicken wire and covered in plaster. With a few windows, a door, and a roof, they had a working one-room structure.

The school principal, Reyna Ortiz de Ramirez, loved the idea, and her enthusiasm was contagious. Zonia Garcia Garcia, another teacher at the school, jumped on board. The project started to gain support around town. “We have volunteers, in the States, but in Guatemala it’s more like forced community engagement, Laura explains.  You’re not volunteering…it’s just what you do.” Creating a repurposing culture through the kids seemed to be working. Having cleaned much of their town of roadside trash, the children led the charge to continue collecting trash and keep the streets clean.

The bottle project received notable attention in the states. PBS NewsHour and ABC World News both aired stories. The Peace Corps made a video to train future volunteers to create similar projects around the world. And Laura, Reyna, and Zonia were invited to come to D.C. and build recycle bins and a sample wall on the Washington mall as a part of the Smithsonian’s Folklife festival.

volunteers outside the bottle classroom

After returning to the United States, Laura decided to return to something familiar while she applied for graduate school. She picked up the same job she had before she joined the Peace Corps and started making coffee at a Starbucks in Portland, OR. She noticed that, though the Starbucks employees had a recycling area in the back, the customers had nowhere to recycle their plastic cold-coffee cups. She started asking around. It turned out that this was not only the case for her branch, but also the other Starbucks locations in the Portland area.

So Laura proposed to construct recycling bins out of the used plastic cups. She created a prototype, and Starbucks loved it. Instead of copyrighting and patenting her model, Laura started developing manuals and activity books to distribute for free. One friend offered to build a website so the PDF files could be posted online. With more encouragement, Laura decided to incorporate Trash for Peace as a 501(c) 3 non-profit enterprise.

bin design

In Guatemala, fewer building regulations made it feasible to construct schools out of trash. The schools required both a lot of time and a lot of community engagement, both of which are harder to come by in the United States economy. The recycling bins, on the other hand, only require a few people and a day or so to build. And since the bins aren’t weight-bearing they can be constructed out of the empty bottles; no one has to stuff all of the plastic bags inside. With the bins, Trash for Peace uses a hands-on method to promote the concepts of waste reduction, just like Laura did with the bottle-walled classrooms.

The idea has taken off. Laura has received emails from teachers in Arizona, Utah, and Maryland who found her website and built bins with their students. The town of Granados has built bins to collect trash around town. What they collect is still burned, but the program helps keep the streets clean and keep some awareness about trash collection in a place where, like many places in the world, an increasing corporate influence yielded a culture of more and more disposable products, and there was nowhere to put them.

The Trash for Peace volunteers have many ideas on how to expand their programs. They have started plots in community gardens, projects in high schools, and are working on a podcast. Events are held all over the Portland area, such as Trashy Trivia for adults, fundraisers, and an exciting new program for adolescent boys in a low-income housing development. “The boys group is very enthusiastic,” Laura says, “and they want job skills.”

One idea in the works is to create a zero-waste coffee café where the boys can work as baristas, gaining important and useful skills for the Pacific Northwest culture. This would be a coffee shop without paper cups, a shop where everything is composted, and the beans come in from Latin America. “I love coffee,” Laura states, “and the carbon footprint of drinking it is pretty sad… we don’t need to bring in coffee from Rwanda. It’s probably delicious! But we can get really good beans from a lot closer.” She envisions the café purchasing carbon offsets for obtaining, roasting, and transporting coffee beans. And though they won’t use paper or plastic to-go cups, they won’t waste the earth’s resources to make their own ceramic mugs, either. “How many coffee mugs are just sitting at Goodwill?” she asks, “and what would it take to put a personalized sticker on that could handle going through a dishwasher?”

Trash for Peace faces some challenges. With so many great ideas flowing it can be hard to focus. It’s difficult to categorize their program because it spans so many areas of activism, and while this may sound like a boon, it can make finding grants more difficult. And real activism is never easy. Our species’ situation on this planet is dire, and it’s impossible to repurpose plastic bottles at the same rate they accumulate.

When Laura finds herself slipping into negativity about the challenges of doing good work, she takes a step back, “I can’t not do this. I want it to be challenging, and that’s part of the fun; that’s part of the reward. Yes, global warming is happening…but every little thing makes a difference. You just need to get perspective. We don’t think about all the little things that people are doing, all the time.” She takes comfort in knowing that there is no one perfect solution. “We’re evolving, little by little, seeing what’s working and what’s not…and we’re not the only ones.”

Laura is humble, too. She asserts that well-known leaders are successful due to the unsung leaders who champion them. “People have an idea that a leader is a public speaker, the one up front talking about it, but there’s not one leader who has done it on his or her own. There’s a team. There’s a support network.” She credits the people who help her—the volunteers and community members—for the maintenance of her positive outlook. And this positivity goes both ways. Laura notes that her personal relationships in Granados were more impactful than the bottle school itself. “As I was really leaving, no one said thank you for the projects that we did. They said, ‘Thank you for the relationship you had with my children.’”

Trash for Peace isn’t just building functional art; they’re building relationships between people, waste, and beauty. To join Trash for Peace’s support network, find out about events, or get free blueprints for building your own bins, check out or find them on Facebook.

Prem Chandika Devi is a yogi, traveller, and writer based in Portland, Oregon. This is her first submission to The Ecotone Exchange.